Beirut: Over a short span of three months, Lebanese Prime Minister Najeeb Miqati and his crack team of eminently qualified ministers put an end to Lebanon’s myriad gun battles throughout the country, negotiated a ceasefire between Sunni and Alawite neighbourhoods in Tripoli and signed a non-aggression pact with Syria whereby Damascus stopped its frequent violations of the international borders.
They also arrested every kidnapper who terrorised locals by deploying masked and machine-gun toting military wings, secured all bank facilities and apprehended dozens of robbers, ensured 24 hours of electricity to a happily bewildered population, and decorated the capital city’s main airport highway with unburned tyres, gifts donated by happy residents whose many grievances were met in a civilised fashion.
The icing on this successful summer cake came on September 3, 2012, when Beirut implemented Law 174, which banned indoor smoking that, understandably, irked those attached to their beloved shishas — they call it narguilih here — and restaurants, cafes, pubs and nightclubs that benefited from such sales.
Most citizens abided by the law, applauding authorities for guaranteeing internal security, and transforming the beautiful country into a smoke-free paradise.
Overnight, roads became spotless without a single piece of trash, adding colour to the otherwise monotonous green trees that stood as temporary ornaments, awaiting the axe. Millions of holes and cracks that served as speed bumps were paved and, miraculously, the Lebanese actually obeyed traffic laws and stopped at red lights and did not squeeze in the metre-wide space between a small Kia and a tanker-truck racing to reach their destination in less than six minutes.
It was a great summer that the long anticipated two million visitors missed out. Had they actually not been scared to travel to Beirut, most would have noticed for themselves how nice living in Lebanon became during this short period of time, with hospitality services reaching their zenith, spotless beaches offering the best amenities, and even cleaner air to breathe in mountain resorts accessible by a road system that served as a model for Swiss engineers.
On September 3, 2011, Lebanon joined the ranks of the civilised world, with most smokers — estimated at nearly half of men between 25 and 65 and nearly a third of women in the same age bracket, abandoning their fixes. It was phenomenal.
Regrettably, not one of these things happened although Lebanon demonstrated, once again, its intrinsically superior entertaining skills. To say that Lebanese politicians have an advanced sense of humour and that, without exception, this made them the funniest people in the entire Arab World, would indeed be understatements.
One literally promised to pass Dubai in five years as he launched the Beirut Digital District, whose aim was to create a hub for technology, attracting foreign investments and helping retain young and talented Lebanese at home instead of expelling them, well, among other places to … Dubai.
Another guaranteed 24/7 electricity when, in reality, the average household received about two hours per day, which forced most citizens to purchase it from neighbourhood merchants that operated powerful generators that, in turn, ran on super-polluting diesel fuel.
Somehow, politicians concerned with the population’s health — thus, Law 174 to ban indoors smoking — failed to make the linkage with the pollution produced by these “motors” that run nearly non-stop.
Lebanon boasts its fair share of comedians and actually has several funny groups that entertain on television as well as various public outlets. Not one among these talented entertainers can rival the country’s seasoned politicians, however, whose innate skills to amuse the public is only surpassed by their huge financial empires in a country that boasts at least 8 billionaires and several thousand multi-millionaires.
It was not clear whether any of these moguls owned some of the 5,000 food outlets that served the country, but after a September 4 timid raid on a café in the southern city of Tyre (Sur), hardly anyone was still talking about Law 174 on September 5.
The Tourism Minister warned that the ranks of the Tourism Police were severely understaffed and that there may not be enough officers available to enforce the new smoking ban. No one pointed out how funny it was to have a “tourism police”, though the good minister lamented that his current staff of around 70 was inadequate, and only 10 could actually be devoted to enforcing the smoking ban. Violators were expected to fork out fines of over $100 (Dh367), and restaurants, cafés, and other outlets would be charged fines ranging between $1,300 and $4,000.
Of course, the Lebanese and their guests continued to smoke while the overall level of pollution remained unprecedented. Power plants spewed oodles of gook into the environment, while hundreds of thousands of indispensable generators disgorged the kind of contamination that affected everyone, as most engines operated within breathing distances of fragile lungs.
An indoor smoking ban was certainly a worthy goal though it was difficult to see how Beirut would enforce the law and, more important, how cynical Lebanese, who experienced similar experimentations with seatbelt and speeding laws, among other beneficial regulations, would remember it next week.